Friday, May 5, 2017

The SCA is writing its own historical fiction (and why that's okay)

SCA publication release form for this article if located here.

As a writer and reader, one of the genre's I have the strongest emotional reaction to is historical fiction. Whether it's trying to slog my way through a  Harry Turtledove novel, or watching S. M. Sterling rewrite the ancient world, historical fiction novels have duel responsibility of having to know the actual history before deviating from it. And regardless of your opinion of historical (or alternate history) fiction, the one thing that can be said for the heavy-hitters in the field if that they bring hardcore academic credentials to the game, long before they put pen to paper for their works.

As a twenty year SCA member, I feel that there is something to be taken from this approach as we flirt with the very poorly defined grey area between LARPing and historical reenactment. The first thing we need to understand is that our game, which is the framework for almost all of what we do, is founded in fiction. The first SCA meeting was a costume party with some fantasy characters in attendance, and our own royal structure, as defined by society law, is ahistorical to ranks and policies in Europe from the time we claim to represent. Everything from how we select officers to what powers the crown has is little removed from a game children might play in their spare time.

So, how do we differentiate ourselves from the LARPing community, and how do be answer the scrutiny of the more staunch reenactment communities we exist alongside?

And before I move forward, let me clarify the importance of these two benchmarks.

 Live Action Role Play is on the rise in the US, gaining popularity and acceptance. It engages the aspects of the human mind previously reserved for fantasy book and movies. They gather in general seclusion, usually preferring their own company and not to become a public spectacle. Alternately, more rigorous reenactment groups, specifically American Civil War reenactors, strike for visual accuracy and personal research that is not only strongly academic but hold close personal relevance to the US as part of its history. These groups appeal to the every-day outside world to come and see history come to life before them. Both of these groups have overlap with SCA interests, and both represent examples of both what we want to accomplish, and what we want to avoid. Also, both have strong relevance in modern society, though for almost opposite reasons.

Most importantly, how can we call ourselves any sort of historical group, let alone an educational one, when our structure is as far departed from reality as it is?

I have heard people say "we recreate the best parts of the middle ages," but always thought that an imperfect answer as it was too vague for me. Most importantly, it was subjective of what people thought were "the best" parts.

For me, the answer is, literally, staring us in the face here. Rather than say "the best parts", or "what we want to do" when we talk about our game, what we should say is far, far more potent towards our actual goals.

We are a group of medieval enthusiasts who pull fragments of history togeather with arbitrary rules in order to both inspire and administer ourselves. But what is vital to this is that we understand where we deviate from history.

I have no illusions about how historically accurate my garb is when compared to my chosen culture and timeframe. And yes, I am investing time and money into upgrading my kit so that I do start to look more historically accurate. But for our purposes here, that's not the important thing. An authentic reenactor would never be seen wearing my costume. And a LARPer would most likely not give a thought to historical accuracy. In our case, or rather, in my case, somewhere in between, my personal, goal is not absolute accuracy, but the ability to say where I deviate from history.

No, the hat isn't strictly historical, I had the design modified to give me extra protection from the sun, for health considerations.

The shirt isn't even remotely English, but I do know what I would be wearing, and I do know where this design comes from. It would not be implausible, or even hard for an English merchant or travelling gentry to purchase this style if he were in Italy, or southern France.

No, the belt isn't really accurate for me, in fact, it would be considered old-fashioned even amongst the old men of my day. But as a SCA-ism, it works and it offers me a place to put my personal items. I am looking towards a more accurate, late period belt style. My belt is much, much more typical of the 11th century men.

I don't wear leggings, and I don't like or wear cod pieces, just deal with that. But, the legwear of the day was generally fitted, but not skin tight for men, so the visual appearance of my garb in that respect is not terribly far off the mark.

No, absolutely nothing about my footwear is period. However, I am a heavy-set, six foot, three-inch tall man who needs to support of modern insoles with proper arch support. As a working herald in the SCA who walks as much as I do, this is just a non-negotiable.

My current messenger bag is about 75% accurate, with the black plastic parts and adjustable strap being the major deviations, of course. None the less, the design, fabric type, and overall use are spot on for any number of locations in Europe across the whole of the "middle ages".

While there is no record to support that an Englishman of my timeframe ever specifically  lived the life I claim to have lived, or regularly donned the clothing that I have now, actual historical records of the day show that the English did travel across Europe for political, military and economic reasons across most of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. As with any travellers, they tended to adopt the clothing of the local area in all but the most formal ceremonial situations.

The life I live in the SCA is a fiction. But it is a fiction built on facts, and so long as I can remember, and reference those facts, I feel confident that I am, indeed, contributing to the educational mandate that is part of the society.

For us who balance history and budget (not to mention time), its not about getting it perfect out the door, it about being who we are, and what we want to emulate when someone asks the question.

And to be clear, part of what I have seen a shift in the society over the past two decades is a trend away from conversations like this, where we learn about each other's cultures and interests and influences and how they relate to our character or even our real selves. I feel that this type of conversation is part of not only want helps us learn more about the society and ourselves, but also helps lay the legwork for personal growth both in the society and within ourselves as individuals.

But even as we ask these questions, the fact of the matter is that we as a society will never have the high levels of historical authenticity set (and at times mandated) by other organisations. However, if we consider our actions here with the same metric that historical fiction authors use before they pen their intricate tales of what might have been, we can see that the idea of knowing real history is what allows us to better create our own fictional tales.

His Lordship Ivo Blackhawk
Kingdom of Ansteorra
"Long Live the King!"

Monday, April 17, 2017

GW26: The measure of a man, the measure of a mission (part 8)

Part 8: afterwards

While my homeland may be called Mooneschaodwe within the society, in the real world its called Stillwater Oklahoma, and it has its share of history. One place where the two realities overlap is Finnegan's Pub, on Main street. The owner is a story worthy of a few books in his own right, but a good summary would be to say that Belgati started the SCA when he was a kid, becoming a page to a then Lord Owen ap Aden, When he turned 18, he joined the US Army and saw action in Iraq before completing his contract. After that was complete, he was hired by Blackwater International. In Medieval parlance, he would be proudly called a mercenary, through the term carries slightly more stigma today that it might have in history. But while the reputations may have shifted over time, the chief benefits of such service did not. He returned home with a  few scars, a lot of stories, and a respectable sum of money. Perhaps not a king's ransom, but enough to do things with. To everyone's surprise (including Belgati's, if you ask him), he opened a bar. To this day, if you know where to look, you can relatively easily see the hints of SCA heritage in the otherwise modern establishment. As a final touch, perhaps an added bit of obliqueness, Finnegan's set itself apart from nearly every other bar in the city by being tobacco free. if you wanted to smoke, there were chairs and cover on the patio, but the house rules were meant to make the place welcoming to people with respiratory sensitivities. 

And this interesting confluence of facts was why I was sitting out front that Monday night after the long drive back from Gulf. While I didn't smoke (or drink for that matter), a good number of the Liondragon guard did, and most of them liked to congregate together. I didn't mind sitting outside with them, the night was comfortable if not hot, and the breeze kept the patio well ventilated, I could barely smell any of the spoke as the few others puffed away. We were all tired, but for different reasons.

The Liondragon had done well at the war, but not enough to turn the tide of several reportedly heavily mismatched battles. While the King's battle ribbon had gone to House Wolfstar this year, an interesting turn of events had lead the Liondragon Rapier fighter's to take home its younger counterpart, the Queen's battle Ribbon.

I recalled from my first year in the SCA how a rapier fighter had seen the Liondragon guard return home with the King's Ribbon held high and proud. The comradery and esprit de corps of that image had inspired the man to take up heavy weapons fighting and to join the unit. Just over a decade later, Jean Paul de Seans would be knighted at Gulf Wars, before the castle that the had fought for and against so many times.  In the following years, he would reign over this same kingdom two times, and author critical changes to kingdom law that helped shape the kingdom we now live in.

Knowing about that story, and knowing how it stands now, I was left to wonder what affects the new battle standard would have on another crop of new members trying to decide if they were more interested in rapier or chivalric combat. Time, I knew, would tell the tale.

But there was certainly no inspiration to be had that night, we were all dead-on-our-feet tired, and not one of us had failed to earn our slouched postures and warn expressions. The captain had lead the guard not only on the heavy field, but also the rapier, and members had acquitted themselves well on both fields. Our Camp "mom", Rosma had shouldered the responsibility (and stresses) of organising and/or preparing three meals a day for us for the whole week, and she was so tired she couldn't even making it out to the makeshift "we made it home" celebration. Charles, who on paper had no responsibilities this war, had none the less busied himself doing what he did well, and to his credit, he had inspired and lead the manpower of Mooneschaodwe more times than I cared to count as we worked to pitch, and then strike camp, build and maintain fires, and then make sure the place was clean before we left. But even he was slouched in his seat, seeming to enjoy the fact he was back on home soil. 

Just then, Belgati stepped out from the front door and announced to us, "Alright, Liondragon's only, I've got food in the back, and we're all going to do a shot! let's go!"

Everyone got up and followed the man in to descend on a massive order of Ti food, and a bottle or two of some of the better stuff the bar had to offer.

Everyone, that is, except for me.

There were no hard feelings, no resentment, not even an ill thought. The fact of the matter was that I resigned my enlistment with the guard ages ago when I declined to take the oath. I had marched with the guard, I had lead them in battle, and I had died  (many times) in defence of this kingdom, and in pursuit of its king's orders. But as I transitioned from the young fighter to a person of my own character, I started to realise that the same attitude and drive that were making me into who I was were also not compatible with the guard as it existed at the time. Just as soldier, by the very nature of his job and his oaths, would make, at best, a constrained diplomat, a Liondragon guardsmen would make a very poor voice herald in the vein of what I had made myself to be all these years. I needed the freedom the cross borders and political alliances, I needed to distance to walk away from fighting and put my time elseware, and when those decisions were being made, the guard needed its members and it needed them close, and at hand.

So, all those years ago, for a million reasons, some polite, some passionate, and every one of them deeply personal, I walked away from calling myself  Liondragon. I still missed it. My heart still remembers what it was to be part of that group, to be one of the famed, and feared Liondragon guardsmen. Honestly, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't look back and smile at that time in my life, even in spite of its many shortcomings and rough spots.

That choice wasn't just a choice, I knew. I knew it then, and I know it even now. That choice was a fork in the road I call life.

To the one side, prestigious, if someone overshadowed service with the guard, whose prowess on and off the field were known kingdom wide.

And to the other, the vague mission to teaching myself site heraldry, and finding others to teach me court heraldry while I tried t stay active as a list herald. To take that path, was to wake up every morning, and be completely at the mercy of others who could, at any point in time, elect not to show up, and face no repercussions for it. It was to trade armour and sword for pen and paper. My enemy would no longer be Triamrus, or any of her allies, but rather the concepts of disorganisation, complacency, and time itself. It would either make myself, to break myself on my own merits, I would have only my own reputation to stand on, and none to fall back when and if it fell short.

And for some reason, or rather for a million reasons, I made that second choice. Its not that it was a harder one. to this day I'll confess that a guardmesn works physically harder at war than I ever do. Nor was it the more glorious, though that is admittedly a subjective metric.

But, it was the right choice for me, and people- no, comrades!,  like Yancy, Dietrich, Bridgit, Captain Savage, Johann and Garith were proof of that.

Getting to meet people Like Master Robin, and Alexander, both teachers, mentors, advocates and friends, were proof.

The goal and accomplishment of site heralding Gulf Wars, the second largest event in the whole of the society, was proof that I had made the right decision all those years ago.

And the friends made along the way, Skaia, Sofia, HE Adela, and HL Vastillia, just to name a few, were a silent testimony of how important that decisions was.

And as I sat there, tired and sore from five  days of walking and good portion of seventeen hours worth of driving, I quietly considered that while I had made the right choice, I still missed being able to honestly call myself "one of the group" out of respect for the fact that I didn't wear the uniform anymore.

Just then, Belgati came back out the door, mot of the others with him. in his hands was a shot glass.

"here you go, man! You too!"

"What?" I blurted out. "I'm not Liondragon anymore!"

"You worked your ass off at Gulf, and you worked for Moonechaodwe a chunk of that. You're entitled to this drink as much as any guard member." He pushed the glass into my hand.

I eyed the orange contents, "what is it, anyway?"

"English breakfast," he said with a smile, hardly the strongest concoction he could have handed me.

As I put the glass to my lips and drank my first taste of alcohol in more years than I really care to recall, I looked over at the rest of the guardsmen there. Some of them were smiling, others nodding at me as I joined them, an invited guest in a circle that I thought myself rightfully excluded from. And my mind went back to that first day on site, when some of these same people had rallied to help us pitch our tent. just like they had so many times before.

Maybe, I considered as I handed the empty glass back, maybe Mooneschaodwe was a relationship that I needed to rethink.

And maybe Finnegan's was a place I might want to hang out at a little more, even if only hi every once in a while.

His Lordship Ivo Blackhawk
Kingdom of Ansteorra
"Long Live the King!"

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

GW26: The measure of a man, the measure of a mission (part 7)

Part 7:  A Diamond, a Rally, and a Bear

Wednesday night for me included a stop off at the Green dragon for purely sentimental reasons.Three years, four wars before, at much the same time, I had walked down Queen's highway and drifted towards the pavilion that sat aside of the dragon, looking for a place to rest for a few. In the dim light of the nighttime setting, I had found myself in the company of a somewhat familiar face. Three days before that, this woman had been the one, as I recall, who had guided me upstairs to the inn's balcony for my dramatic herald to the assembled for help with troll the previous Sunday. That night, however, as we sat in the relative calm of the dark outside of the inn's boisterous crowd, we both sat there, largely quiet. I remember making small talk for a few minutes, thought nothing momentous. Then, by happenstance, I asked how her day was shaping up, and she replied with a bit of an exhausted tone, that she was running a tournament the next day, and was trying to find enough heralds to cry the lists. 

Needless to say, my ears perked up, and in short order, I found myself enlisted in the service of one Viscountess Marian Lioncina da Susa, a member of the order of the Diamonds, past territorial princesses of the then principality of Gleann Abhann. All in one moment, I, a random traveller, and she a hard-working proprietor of the most famous in the SCA most likely, were transformed in our seats to other aspects of ourselves, namely a veteran list herald, and a member of the royal house of Gleann Abhann, respectively. 

For all the miracle that the chance encounter may be I treated it for what it was, a person who needed assistance, and a job that needed to be done. I think my own regret of the diamond tournament the next day was that for all it magic and charm, it was lost in the backdrop of even greater things happening in my life, but I say here that the Diamonds were no less welcoming or supportive of me than any other tournament I cried for that week those years ago. Theirs was a magic no less than any others in the society, and are, I say, still a mark above the rest in many ways. 

And tonight, three years later,  as I walked in the door, I saw the same dress and the same white headcover on the same woman, worked tired, but still happy and energised for the magic of both her efforts and those of her fellow volunteers behind the counter. 

"I wanted you to know," I explained to her after a brief bit of reintroductions, "That I still remember being allowed to herald from your balcony that night. And I still remember heralding the diamond's tournament. I guess," I said hesitantly, knowing I probably sounded a bit like a fool there, "I just wanted you to know that I still look back on all of that and it gives me a lot of great memories, and it was part of a giant adventure for me that year." I stopped there, knowing that I was on the verge of babbling. 

Marian's smile just then told me that the intent of my message was received in the spirit it was meant to be. And in return for my gesture, I finally had a name to put to my miraculous coincidence.

This year at Gulf, miracles and coincidences were not scarce either.

Two days later, I walked into our makeshift headquarters exhausted, and ready to see the final site announcements sent out for the war. It had been a good run thus far, we have cried all of the main roads and even gotten down by the archery field the last three times out. The coverage was amazing for such a modest bands of volunteers, and I was hoping to see the effort go out with a bang. But as the minutes ticked by, no one showed.

In my mind, I wondered if the cold, the fatigue and the long walks had taken their toll on everyone. Maybe they were all cashed out, getting well-deserved rest after heralding site and doing a million other things. Try as I may, I couldn't bring myself to be mad at anyone, though the idea of having to cancel the final cries was a cold bit that sat poorly at my stomach.

Then, at about quarter till the top of the hour, they came in the door. First, it was just Yancy, then Johann, and then Athena, and then Bridgit and then the rest. Within moments, I had no less than eight people standing there, ready to carry the messages out. Just when I had prepared myself for a fizzling end to our campaign, the site heralds of Gulf were going to rally for one glorious sendoff. As we wrote down the final words for the day and assigned out the routes, it was so crowded in there that I had to tell everyone to go outside so we all would have room to point and talk. I quipped that I felt a bit like General Patton as depicted by George C Scott in the famous movie opening credits, standing before an army worth of pride, and professionals in their task.

I literally felt tears come to my eyes as I assigned the last of the routes and sent them on their way. We had done it, we had heralded the second largest site in the SCA, we had done it for five days, and we can hit all the main roads each time.

And not one of them, not one of us as complained about the challenges or the time involved.

We had come, we had face challenges, and when the final round came, we rallied.

and they succeeded!

But the adventure was not over for us, not just yet.

Lady Bridgit of Mooneschaodwe, our resident sign herald that day, was just wrapping up her announcements in the Merchant's row when a figure sprinted up to her. Meridies own Taran The Wayward, a herald and good friend of myself, had run from the site of the ravine battle in desperate search for a sign herald. He'd first reached the five points, only to be told Bridgit was out doing announcements. From there, the search turned into a chance as he raced through the rows of merchant's tents.

He explained the situation, in brief, his crown was about to present an order of high merit in fighting, and the recipient was Deaf.

Bridgit, who stands barely a hand's breadth over five foot, and little wider than a fibreglass spear, was reported to have taken off like a shot at that point, her herald's tabard trailing behind her like a wind swept cape.

A few minutes later, Bridgit did, in fact, find the court of Mercedes, held on the battlefield. And did, in fact, and for the first time that I know of, serve as a sign herald for a foreign court. The recipient was made a member of the order of the Bear, an order for chivalric fighting. And, thanks to the skills of Bridgit, and her fleet-footedness, every line of the ceremony was conveyed in America Sign language, allowing them to be fully part of the ceremony in real time.

Friday had ended on the highest of high notes for the site heralds.

And through our work, the lives of others were made better for it.

Back L-R: Ivo, Kitty, Yancy, Johann, Gareth
Front L-R: Detrick, Athena, Kayla, Bridgit. 

His Lordship Ivo Blackhawk
Kingdom of Ansteorra
"Long Live the King!"